Using experimental technology, Arnald’s new album is innovative and a break from the old in the best sort of way.
Released August 24, “re:member” is Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds’s fourth studio album. Arnalds is an experimental composer whose compositions toe the line between classical and electronica. He seamlessly blends violins, cellos, piano, electronic percussion and synth. In one of his earliest LPs, he even incorporated a computer generated voice into a few songs (which I mainly mention because one of the songs, “Himininn Er Ao Hrynja, en Stjornurnar Fara Per Vel,” was also used as inspiration behind a Warrior Cats AMV on Youtube).
Arnalds’s work is often characterized by his simple, melancholic style. His music is slow and flowing, and it captivates the listener through delicate, yet powerful, emotive melodies. His style was used effectively to provide a unique, impactful score for the British murder-mystery series “Broadchurch,” of which Arnalds cinched a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award in 2014. His new album “re:member,” however, delineates from his usual style.
Arnalds explores new territories with “re:member,” through both the creative process of the album and the musical style itself. “Re:member” is Arnalds’s first album to incorporate Stratus, a musical technology that Arnalds and audio developer Halldór Eldjárn collaborated together to create “semi generative, self playing pianos,” also known as the Stratus pianos. The software works by receiving the notes that Arnalds plays on one piano and translates them through the Stratus software to play a variety of other chords and notes on the Stratus pianos in somewhat random patterns. (The exact technology is a bit beyond my understanding, although you can hear more about the process on Arnalds’ YouTube.)
Stratus was first created to expedite Arnalds’s creative process and allow for greater variety in his music. “It’s like playing jazz improvisation almost,” he said in one of the behind-the-scenes videos posted on YouTube. The variety provided by Status allowed him to consider new possibilities and directions when writing his music instead of sticking to the familiar. Status also influenced the album beyond providing new ideas for the songwriting process. Its dreamy raindrops sounds also feature in a majority of the songs.
Stylistically, Arnalds uses “re:member” to take a step away from his usual, morose sound and instead experiment with more upbeat, poppier sounds. Throughout the creation of the album, Arnalds said that he realized, “I don’t have to be trying to fit into some kind of box I never put myself in.” He let “re:member” sound more energetic because he wanted to be able reflect the music he listens to — hip-hop, breakbeat and other composers — instead of being limited to his past sound.
To those unfamiliar with Arnalds, the songs on “re:member” might not feel especially jubilant, but compared to his past works, many of the tracks have a liveliness to them that previous tracks lack.
The titular track “re:member” is one of the longest on the album, lasting a total of six minutes and five seconds. It works well as a transition to the album and introduction into the new sound. The beginning starts off slow, like a typical Olafur Arnalds song, with soft piano and gentle strings. Halfway through, Stratus breaks in with its tinkling, rain-like notes. The music feels like it’s running forward into a new season that is bright and blooming. At the very end, all the music stops, leaving only a watery echo and a hopeful, optimistic finish.
This is not to say that “re:member” is a complete departure off of Arnalds’s original sound, more like a step or two in a different direction. In fact, several of the tracks on the album have strong similarities with his older works. “Saman” and “momentary” feel like they could have come from the collection “Living Room Songs.” The songs are both quite simplistic and so still that you can hear the sound of the pedals of the piano and the static of the room. I love it. Arnalds’s music doesn’t make you feel deeply depressed or extremely jovial; it makes you feel present. You feel present and aware of yourself, your place, and your less-exciting midrange emotions: passive, calm, slightly regretful and nostalgic.
Other incredible tracks on the album include “inconsist,” another upbeat track that blends positive, fast-paced percussion and strings with Stratus’s airy chords. My personal favorite is “ypsilon,” which blends the organic physicality of the strings and piano with electronic sounds and synth that sound so clean and stark against the surrounding music that they feel alien.
The final song, “nyepi,” is another perfect blend of old and new Olafur. Instead of transitioning between slow and fast, reflection and moving-forward, it combines the two. The jingling Stratus keys, used so often in the album to create brightness, are interwoven with a mournful instrumental. There can’t always be happiness, but there can still be beauty even in sadness and even in ending. What I think is the most interesting about the final track is that after the music stops there’s still another 15 seconds of silence before the song — and album — finally come to an end. I like to think that space was left there so you as the listener could take a few seconds to rest in the silence and feel grounded and present in your current state. I know it does for me.